While there is plenty of information out there about postpartum depression (PPD), very little of it actually discusses the root causes of PPD. Women hear a lot about symptoms to watch out for and are told horror stories from celebrities and mom bloggers alike. But medical experts rarely prepare a pregnant woman to look out for factors that might contribute to postpartum depression once her baby is born. I’m not talking about exhaustion or the overwhelming change that is bringing a new baby into the household. I’m talking about the deeper emotional and psychological triggers of depression that can hit new moms hard. Pregnant women are rarely asked if they experienced child abuse or neglect. If such an obvious question is never asked, they are most definitely never asked what is, perhaps, the most important question of all when it comes to PPD: What was your relationship like with your mother?
In her book Being There, psychotherapist Erica Komisar stresses how a woman’s relationship with her own mother will inevitably impact her relationship with her baby. Studies have shown that we hold a “maternal memory” that causes us to repeat maternal behavior generationally. This means that women whose mothers were not physically or emotionally present enough for them will most likely repeat this mothering pattern with their own children. “Whether she has one or five children,” Komisar writes, “a mother will often find herself interacting with her own infant in the same manner as her mother did with her. The problem with this is that unless a mother has been able to resolve the ambivalent feelings she has about her own mother, it is likely that her behavior will not change.”
Writing at Babble, Lindsay Wolf details her own struggle with postpartum depression and anxiety. Through therapy, she re-engaged with abusive experiences she lived through as a child. This was the breakthrough she needed to understand why she was experiencing PPD:
I’m now about three months into weekly counseling sessions and the difference it has made is extraordinary. But there has been one particularly eye-opening experience recently. My therapist explained that if a parent has experienced any major childhood trauma, chances are they will be triggered during moments of parenthood, and reminded of it. As soon as she shared that information, I welled up with tears.
Because it all began to make sense.
Not every woman needs to experience gross levels of abuse as a child to be triggered into PPD. Simply having lived through the emotional absence (or intrusion) of her own mother growing up is enough to trigger emotions long-repressed once a baby arrives. Komisar explains:
For a woman, having a baby can open the floodgates of repressed or hidden emotions. That is often when mothers have a breakdown, as in postpartum depression, or come to me with feelings of depression or anxiety that may be delayed postpartum responses. …Most people think that postpartum depression is caused by hormonal changes, but in many cases it is more complex, involving the absence of a good enough internal mother to support, validate, reassure, and soothe a new mother.
Peggy O’Mara once said, “The way we talk back to our children becomes their inner voice.” This is the voice we hear in our head as new mothers. For exhausted, fearful new moms whose own mothers were extremely critical or simply not there, that inner voice can be the kind of critic that drives them over the edge. Komisar recommends insight-oriented psychotherapy in order to “make mothers self-aware and understand how their past influences their present behavior, which is critical to change in a more sustainable way.”